By David McCarthy for CoinWeek …..
On a hot afternoon this summer, I found myself wandering a suburban park in search of a grave.
Like most wild goose chases, it started innocently enough. I’d been part of a discussion about the so-called “Nagy Restrikes” of one of the most well-loved coins of the gold rush: the Baldwin Horseman $10. I say so-called, because A) the pieces in question are not restrikes at all, they’re made from imitation dies, and B) I’m pretty sure that Stephen Nagy – a coin dealer blamed for many sketchy fantasy pieces of the early 20th century – was around 10 years old when the aforementioned imitation dies were made (probably to make souvenir spoons for the California Midwinter Fair of 1894, but that’s a story for another day).
As luck would have it, a package of these coins arrived at my office while the discussion was going on, and alongside the “restrikes” there was something a little more interesting: an 1844 large cent overstruck with dies for a Horseman $10. This Horseman $10 wasn’t one of the imitation pieces, but it wasn’t a Baldwin $10 either. When I saw it, the first thing I thought was, Holy shit, that’s rare!
The coin’s 1850-dated obverse bore the familiar Horseman motif: probably the best-loved image on any coin of the California (or any other) gold rush. The reverse was different from the famous Baldwin $10: it was inscribed “KOHLER & Co. SAN FRANCISCO” around a small eagle and 31 stars, an apparent reference to California’s impending status as the 31st U.S. state. Known by a small handful of numismatists since the 19th century, the Kohler $10 pattern was still quite mysterious: the only published picture of the piece had been taken nearly 70 years ago, making it impossible to determine whether it was a clever fantasy or an important piece of California history.
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The story of Baldwin, Kohler, and one of the most iconic images in all of U.S. numismatics begins with a low-level New York City politico, Jonathan D. Stevenson, and the Mexican-American War.
A member of New York City’s political machine, the Sons of Saint Tammany, Stevenson managed to secure an appointment from President James Polk to command the First Regiment of New York Volunteers in an expedition to California in 1846. By the time Colonel Stevenson and his men arrived in San Francisco, most of California was under U.S. control, and the only command awaiting the would-be war hero was that of the sleepy pueblo of Los Angeles. His tenure there was uneventful until news of the discovery of gold on the American River turned all of California – and the world – on its head.
The port of San Francisco – a far-flung trading village when Stevenson and his regiment had first arrived on the West Coast – was now the focus of the world’s attention. The men of his regiment abandoned their posts and quickly began to amass fortunes, and Stevenson didn’t want to be left behind. He wrote to friends in New York, many of them members of the Sons of Saint Tammany, telling them to take the trip around the horn.
One of his fellow Tammanites, a fireman named David Broderick, heeded Stevenson’s advice, forming the Republic Company with 10 friends in April of 1849. The men sailed for San Francisco via Panama, docking in California on July 16. Upon their arrival, the company disbanded, leaving Broderick and his friend, jeweler Frederick Kohler, in San Francisco. The two soon fell in with Colonel Stevenson, who seems to have sensed a golden opportunity.
California in 1849 was long on gold but hopelessly short on usable money. As a result, trade in gold dust and nuggets was a lucrative business: California placer gold contained over $18 worth of gold per ounce, but in the absence of a federal mint, local exchange brokers would only pay $16 an ounce for the yellow metal. In order to make a profit, the brokers then had to ship the dust and nuggets to the east in a costly and time-consuming process.
Stevenson knew that Kohler’s training as a jeweler required him to know how to assay gold, a skill that would allow the trio to pay competitively for placer gold, then convert it into jewelry, ingots, and even coins. By eliminating the need to ship gold to Philadelphia or New York, the partnership was guaranteed an incredible competitive advantage.
While Stevenson, Kohler, and Broderick were planning their venture, two members of the Colonel’s former regiment went into business with the founders of The Miner’s Bank: Steven Wright and Samuel Haight (namesake of San Francisco’s legendary Haight Street). Discussions must have taken place between the two firms, and in August, Wright and Haight petitioned the collector of customs for the port of San Francisco to accept $5 and $10 Miner’s Bank pieces for payment of duties. The proposal was rejected, but The Miner’s Bank issued coins – struck by Broderick & Kohler, according to testimony given by one of the firm’s principles in 1852.
In the late summer of 1849, Broderick & Kohler appear to have begun striking the Miner’s Bank pieces, some of the first coins manufactured within the San Francisco city limits. With Stevenson’s financial and political backing, the partnership prospered, but public opinion in San Francisco shifted with the wind.
In October of 1849, the New Orleans Mint published an assay of two California gold $10s: eagles struck by Moffat and Miner’s Bank. According to their report, the coins contained $9.78 and $9.65, respectively. If accurate (and subsequent assays on coins from both companies suggest that this assay may not have been), the California coins were 2.2 – 3.5% under their stated values.
In a community where a pair of boots could cost as much as $40, and a year’s rent for an office might be $75,000, this alleged seignorage seems positively reasonable; however, fiery editorials – often written by local exchange bankers – worked the people of San Francisco into a frenzy. Soon, the Miner’s Bank $10s were called “a drug on the market” and eventually traded at a discount of 20% to the same outraged exchange bankers, who made a handsome profit sending the coins back east. In fact, the proceeds made on purchases of discredited California gold coins ended up being substantially higher than those made buying gold dust and nuggets. A few wealthy, well-organized individuals managed to use the media to swindle the gullible public. Apparently, some things never change.
At the time, the only thing in San Francisco that may have been more flammable than public sentiment was the city itself. The gold rush boomtown was a collection of windswept tents, shanties and larger, mostly wooden structures. The first major fire in San Francisco engulfed the Shades Hotel in January of 1849, but on the morning of Christmas Eve, the city’s business district would go up in flames. Following the fire, San Francisco’s Town Council called a public meeting at Portsmouth Square, and Broderick and Kohler, veterans of New York City’s fire companies, helped to organize the city’s first fire department.
Broderick’s public star was soon on the rise. On January 8, he was elected to the State Senate in order to replace Senator Nathaniel Bennett, who had been elected to California’s Superior Court.
F. D. Kohler & Company could have continued without him, but the dissolution of The Miner’s Bank a week later, followed by Stevenson’s decision to sell his share of the business shortly thereafter must have crippled the assaying firm. With the State Legislature considering a pair of bills that would have threatened to end the practice of private coinage in California, Kohler decided to sell his business, and in March, an ad ran in the Pacific News announcing:
BALDWIN & CO. Successors to F. D. KOHLER & CO. Assayers, refiners, and coiners Manufacturers of jewelry, etc, George C. Baldwin and Thos. S. Holman. All kinds of engraving. Our coins redeemable on presentation. The undersigned, having disposed of their stock in trade, machinery, etc., to Messrs. Baldwin & Co. would cheerfully recommend them to the confidence of the public. F. D. Kohler & Co.
Kohler soon found himself working as Assistant Harbormaster in San Francisco, but his skills as an assayer were still in demand: in April, citizens of San Francisco had petitioned the State Legislature to create an official assay office for the State of California. Early the following month, an act was passed establishing the State Assay Office, and Kohler was soon appointed to run it.
The newly-formed California State Assay Office would accept deposits of gold dust and nuggets, converting them into bars for the deposited for a surcharge of 1.75% of the bar’s total value. The fineness, weight, and value of each ingot would be stamped on its face, along with the legend “F.D. Kohler State Assayer Cal.”
The public apparently approved of the new institution, and despite the fact that the law stipulated hours of 9 AM to 2 PM, demand forced the Assay Office to operate around the clock.
An analysis of the known bars issued at the San Francisco location indicates that Kohler stamped the bars with a value of around 1.5% below the actual mint value of gold at $20.67 per ounce. After the criticisms leveled at Moffat and The Miner’s Bank six month earlier, this may have been a concession intended to guarantee universal acceptance of the ingots; however, the exchange bankers were unimpressed, and many refused to accept the so-called “slugs” at par, probably in the hope of another round of profits at the public’s expense. This time around, smaller businesses rallied in support of the ingots, keeping the pieces in circulation until the federal government intervened, establishing the United States Assay Office at San Francisco in early 1851.
After shuttering the California State Assay Office, Frederick Kohler continued as first Chief Engineer of the San Francisco Fire Department. He later held a series of local political positions and opened the Blue Wing Saloon on Montgomery Street. He died in 1864, after a long bout of kidney disease.
His friend and former partner, David C. Broderick, rose to political prominence in California’s Democratic Party, eventually becoming a member of the United States Senate in 1857. Slavery had become one of the nation’s most divisive issues, and California’s politicians became embroiled in the issue in the run-up to the Civil War. Broderick was a prominent Free-Soiler, opposing the legalization of slavery in California, and when David S. Terry, the pro-slavery Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court lost his bid for re-election in 1859, he blamed Broderick.
Insults were hurled back and forth by the two, with Broderick eventually accusing Terry of corruption. Terry challenged the Senator to a duel outside the San Francisco city limits, and in a turn of events that echoed the Hamilton/Burr duel held 55 years earlier, Broderick’s gun discharged first, allowing Terry a clear shot at his enemy. The former judge’s bullet hit Broderick in the lung, and after three days, the Senator was dead, an apparent martyr to the cause of abolition.
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History is a tricky thing: we are taught to believe that the truth is recorded in a book somewhere out there, but historians – even the best of them – often get things wrong, and this is where the story of Broderick and Kohler becomes interesting.
After the duel, the story of Broderick, Kohler, and the coins that they struck during the early days of the California Gold Rush became caught up in a web posthumous, often politicized, storytelling. Broderick had not only opposed slavery in California, he had also called out what he saw as corruption in the ranks of the Democratic Party.
His death afforded the politically astute an opportunity to characterize Broderick in the service of their own agendas. His alleged last words, “They have killed me because I was opposed to the extension of slavery and a corrupt Administration,” were tailor-made for the times, and were taken up by enemies of the Democratic Party and slavery alike. Consequently, in the months that followed Broderick’s death, politicians throughout the United States began to mythologize the first-term Senator, comparing him – somewhat obviously – to Alexander Hamilton. The immediate backlash against these eulogies appeared in the New York Times, and logically required the image of Broderick as a corrupt “rough” who strong-armed his way through California politics.
Over the next year, the Republican party would adopt Broderick, presenting him as an honorable crusader laid low by corruption in the Democratic party. Ironically, the Democratic operator’s portrait was hung at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, accompanied by his alleged last words. Historians now believe that this re-imagining of the former coiner may have been a deciding factor in the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1860.
Three years later, Lincoln was presented a walking stick by California Senator John Conness, who explained to the President that the cane had been presented to him by David Broderick. Lincoln’s response was recorded in the New York Times as follows:
The President accepted the cane, and, with much emotion, replied that he never personally knew the Senator’s friend, Mr. BRODERICK, but he had always heard him spoken of as one sincerely devoted to the cause of human rights, Testimony to this point of his character had been borne by those whom he had not intimately known, as also by those with whom he was personally and intimately acquainted, and, with all of them, the testimony had been uniform. The memento which was presented him by Senator CONNESS was one of that class of things, the highest honor that could be conferred upon him. If, in the position he had been placed, he had done anything that entitled him to the honor the Senator had assigned him, it was a proud reflection that his acts were of such a character as to merit the affiliation of the friends of a man like DAVID C. BRODERICK. Whether remaining in this world or looking down upon the earth from the spirit land, to be remembered by such a man as DAVID C. BRODERICK was a fact he would remember through all the years of his life. The proudest ambition that he could desire was to do something for the elevation of the condition of his fellow-man. In conclusion, he returned his sincere thanks for the part the Senator bore in this presentation, and to the memory of his friend.
Meanwhile, Broderick’s enemies turned over every rock in the hope of catching a whiff of scandal.
Apart from Broderick’s alleged strong-arm tactics, the kerfluffle surrounding the Miner’s Bank coins apparently provided grist for the political mill. Ten or more years after the fact, the story would be presented as apparent proof of the Senator’s corruption. After all, Broderick and Kohler HAD struck $10 gold pieces that eventually traded for $8 apiece. Never mind that the coins in question contained $9.87 worth of gold, according to U.S. Mint assays.
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In 1911, numismatist Edgar Adams published “Private Gold Coinage IV – Californian Private Mints, 1849-1855” in the American Journal of Numismatics. In it, he reviewed every known privately-issued California gold coin and the history of the known firms. In his section on The Pacific Company, it appears as though the stories about Broderick, Kohler, and their minting operation led him astray.
In it, Adams wrote:
From what information can be gained, the coins bearing the stamp of the “Pacific Company” were produced by the coining firm of Broderick & Kohler, sometimes referred to as F.D. Kohler & Co., composed of David C. Broderick, afterward United States Senator from California, and one of the State’s chief citizens, and Frederick D. Kohler, the first Chief Engineer of San Francisco.
He then reproduced more than a page of quotations about Broderick and Kohler, rather than The Pacific Company. Referring to the text as “a mass of contradictory evidence, contain[ing] some accurate statements and very many inaccurate ones,” Adams was somehow not dissuaded from attempting to demonstrate the hypothesis that the mysterious Pacific Company coins were the work of Broderick and Kohler. Drawing upon a couple of statements about Broderick and Kohler’s $5 and $10 issues containing only $4 and $8 worth of gold, as well as an off-hand reference to a sledgehammer, Adams concluded that:
It is quite probable that the coins of the Pacific Company were hand-struck, which explains the reference to the sledge-hammer. This method was utilized at some of the other private mints, such, for instance, as that of the Ormsby establishment, which operated at Sacramento at about the same time. At the 1884 Levick Sale a Ten Dollar gold-piece of the Pacific Company, rudely struck, but in fine condition, would seem, judging by the photograph, to have been produced by a blow of the hammer.
Taking into consideration all the circumstances, it seems almost certain that the Pacific Company coins were made by Broderick & Kohler. This firm undoubtedly struck Five and Ten Dollar pieces, yet there is no specimen known showing either the name of Broderick & Kohler or F.D. Kohler & Co. No coins of the California series, except those of the Pacific Company, were of a value approximate to $4 and $8 for the Five and Ten Dollar pieces, and the origin of the other coins of 1849 has been settled with reasonable certainty.
At the time he wrote the article, which would ultimately be published as a part of his groundbreaking book, Private Gold Coinage of California, 1849-55, its History and its Issues, Adams was unaware of the 1852 court testimony identifying Broderick and Kohler as the minters of coins for The Miner’s Bank, coins whose market value in 1850 had dropped to 80% of their face value, despite the fact that they contained very nearly their face value in gold.
In his attempt to conveniently solve two mysteries at once, Adams assumed that the $4 and $8 valuations referred to the intrinsic value of the coins (Pacific Company’s issues had assayed at a dismal 78% of par), as opposed to their market value. In so doing, he inadvertently perpetuated the image of the pair as fraudsters – an unfair characterization first made by unscrupulous bankers in 1849, then repeated by political enemies of Broderick a decade later. This mischaracterization has been reproduced in virtually every book and article about their coining operation ever since. Even Wikipedia’s entry about David C. Broderick includes the following:
In 1849, Broderick joined the California Gold Rush. He moved to San Francisco, where he engaged in smelting and assaying gold. Broderick minted gold coins that contained less gold than their face value, keeping the difference. His $10 coins, for example, contained $8 in gold. He used the profits to finance his political aspirations.
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Given the available evidence, the only extant coins that can confidently be credited to Broderick & Kohler, or to Kohler & Co. are the regular Miner’s Bank $10s (the so-called Crimped Border pieces are a 20th-century forgery, and will be the subject of a future article), and the unique Kohler $10 mentioned at the top of this article, assuming that it is genuine.
Fortunately, we don’t have to assume.
After receiving the Kohler $10, I was able to take high-resolution scans of the piece and overlay it with known Baldwin $10s. The obverse die used to strike both was clearly the same; however, the coins struck by Baldwin and company all exhibit a prominent die gouge at about 10:00 on the obverse, starting at the top of the L in CALIFORNIA, and running to the dentils. This gouge is absent on the Kohler $10, meaning that it was struck from an earlier state of the obverse die.
Incredibly, the Baldwin Horseman – among the most famous pioneer gold coins of all time – was evidently intended to be the flagship coin for Kohler and Co., but the orchestrated attack on private coins made by exchange bankers in late 1849 set in motion a chain of events that ended with Broderick turning to politics, Kohler selling his business, and Baldwin purchasing his stock in trade, machinery, etc.., including a magnificently designed and engraved $10 die.
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The discussion about the not-really-Nagy not-really-Restrikes that started this particular trip down the rabbit hole of San Francisco/California/U.S. history yielded a personal surprise. My friend John discovered that Frederick Kohler was buried a short drive from my apartment. I thought that it would be fitting to visit the gravesite and take a picture of Kohler’s headstone to accompany the article that had already begun taking shape in my mind. A GPS search and a 20-minute drive later, I was almost there.
Pioneer Memorial Cemetery sat on a hill overlooking a typical suburban park, half an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’d actually been there once before, and remembered seeing a grave with a familiar name – I became certain it had said KOHLER. I made my way up the hill to the sound of kids playing a hundred yards away. The sun was out, and it had gotten hot.
The headstone that I remembered was near the hill’s peak – it was a weathered, white obelisk that really wore a century and a half of exposure to the elements. I approached it, but was disappointed to see the name HAVEN carved on it. Then I saw the grave I’d recognized on my earlier trip: ATHERTON – the name of a local street. Disappointed, I began combing the entire hill, looking for Kohler’s marker. It wasn’t there.
That afternoon, I went home and found an article about the cemetery’s history. It had served prominent members of the community starting in the 1860s, but fell into disrepair during the Great Depression and became a hangout for local teens. By the 1950s, reports of vandalism – including those of someone using a horse to pull down headstones – became the norm. In 1964, the town of Novato took the cemetery over, but by then, many of the original grave markers were long gone, including Frederick Kohler’s.
Some people just can’t catch a break.
About the Author
David McCarthy is the Senior Numismatist and Researcher at Kagin’s. After studying public communications at State University College in Buffalo, he worked as a producer and talent buyer in New York producing concerts by such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Smashing Pumpkins, and Cher. Having a lifelong interest in numismatics, his career in the field began in 2000 when he accepted a position with Richard Nachbar Rare Coins. In 2003, he relocated to Northern California to continue his career with Kagin’s.
David has handled an astonishing array of major U.S. and world rarities, has acted as a consultant to banks, museums, and grading companies, and he has worked closely with the Smithsonian Institution, The United States Secret Service, Bank of California, Union Bank, The San Francisco Old Mint and the American Numismatic Association. He is a regular contributor to the Red Book and CoinWorld, has taught advanced numismatic classes for the American Numismatic Association and has been featured in Rare Coin Market Report and The Numismatist.
David is sought after to speak on the subject of Pioneer Gold coins, regulated gold and in specialized areas of numismatics, history and collecting. He has been interviewed by the Professional Coin Grading Service, The Society of Private and Pioneer Numismatists, Pacific Coast Numismatic Society, CoinWeek and Clark Smith’s VoiceAmerica.
David is a member of ANA, FUN, CSNS, and PCNS and is considered a top numismatic professional. With his passion, sharp mind and keen eye for detail; he is one to watch in the field of numismatics.